How NOT to stop the HUNH

Posted on | August 29, 2014 | No Comments

Lorenzo Ward had too long to gameplan for Texas A&M.

Too long?, you say. Yes, too long. The Gamecocks’ defensive staff clearly outfoxed themselves in trying to stop the Aggies. Carolina had known that Texas A&M was the first game (and East Carolina, the second opponent, runs a nearly identical offense) and had all spring, summer, and fall camp to find a way to stop Texas A&M’s vaunted Air Raid offense.

In coming up with his team’s plan, defensive coordinator Ward overthought it. Somehow, in the dregs of the off-season, weeks and months removed from seeing the Aggies in person, Ward became convinced that his defense could simply out-talent the Aggies. If the Texas A&M game had been the final week of the season, Ward would have had a different plan. A better one.

South Carolina’s gameplan for Texas A&M

The Gamecocks’ defensive plan for the Aggies was to match Texas A&M strength-on-strength with an eight-man pass defense. Ward, in scribbling formations all off-season, decided that his defense could cover A&M’s five-star receivers all over the field, nevermind that Alabama has (twice) been burned trying the exact same thing with more talent.

The Gamecocks came out in a 3-4 defense, different from the 4-2-5 they’ve run over most of Spurrier’s tenure. Spurrier and Ward have previously stated that the transition to the 3-4 is a result of the rising spread and HUNH teams. How? Well, the Gamecock defensive plan was to use the 3-4 to drop eight in coverage and actually try to cover the entire field, even though this would give Texas A&M all day to throw. This bird-brained plan could only be the result of months of planning. With only a week to plan, the Gamecocks never would have attempted this reckless and risky strategy.

3-4 defense, Cover 4

3-4 defense, Cover 4

Shown is a four-man-under coverage with four deep. That gives some basic coverage zones, but Carolina was actually trying to run man defense underneath, similar to what LSU did to beat the Aggies in each of the last two seasons.

Cover 2 Man from 3-4 defense

Cover 2 Man from 3-4 defense

This was South Carolina’s main coverage at the start, although it looked like they tried to mix some zones in early. When the outside linebackers are replaced by extra defensive backs, it becomes a 3-2-6. LSU used John Chavis’ infamous 3-2-6 Mustang to stop the Aggies in each of the last two seasons.

Johnny Manziel's career QBR by game. The two dips are against LSU.

Johnny Manziel’s career QBR by game. The two dips are against LSU.

So it worked for LSU, why didn’t it for Carolina? Two basic reasons:

  1. LSU has way more secondary talent. This plan won’t work unless you can out-talent your opponent. Pretty only Alabama and LSU can do this to opponents, and even Alabama is so used to its style of defense that it’s a tough adjustment. The Tigers were able to stick with Aggie receivers in ways the Gamecocks couldn’t.
  2. Any quarterback will destroy a secondary if he has all day to throw. LSU has talented 4-3 rush ends that were able to get pressure on Johnny Manziel. They didn’t sack him, but that wasn’t their goal. They contained and disrupted him, forcing to him to beat them from the pocket with limited time to throw. South Carolina, without Jadeveon Clowney, was unable to get any kind of pressure on Kenny Hill.

The second point is the difference between a 3-2-6 Mustang like what LSU runs and a 3-4 that has been converted into a 3-2-6. The Mustang keeps its rush ends on the field because John Chavis understands the value of pressuring the quarterback. The strategist in me wishes I could have seen this rout coming given what Carolina revealed about its gameplan.

Now, defending Auburn and Texas A&M are different, although there are some similarities. South Carolina learned the hard way that reactionary defenses aren’t the answer for this type of offense. For hurry-up offenses, disrupting the timing is essential.

The Chip Kelly effect

When Chip Kelly made the jump from Oregon to the Philadelphia Eagles, the NFL got involved in figuring out how to stop the HUNH. Few teams were successful against the Eagles in year one, but that’s typical for a new system. When the Hogs snagged Robb Smith out of the Tampa Bay, they got a coach with NFL connections. Randy Shannon, Rory Segrest, and Bielema himself have connections into the NFL. Greg Schiano, Dave Wannestedt, and Butch Davis have ties to the program and to the NFL.

What will we see on Saturday from the Hogs?

Lorenzo Ward was given seven months to plan for Texas A&M, and he overthought the gameplan and saw his defense get destroyed. If Robb Smith overthinks things and convinces himself that the Hogs can pin the Tigers after they’ve already crossed the line of scrimmage, you can turn off your TV now. But, as both Smith’s and Shannon’s histories suggest, that won’t be the case. The big takeaway from yesterday’s game, just like the takeaways from numerous games a year ago, is that the best way to stop a HUNH is to disrupt its timing. We’ll see if the Hogs can pull it off.

Tonight We Oneback

Posted on | August 28, 2014 | No Comments

When the depth chart came out a few days ago, I was surprised at what I saw.

depthchart

See that? No fullback. Now, it could simply be that no starter stepped up at fullback to replace Kiero Small (a tall task, certainly), and so the coaches ditched the I-formation as a base out of necessary and decided on a 2WR, 2TE Oneback. But somehow I doubt that.

You see, as I’ve covered before, both Bret Bielema and Jim Chaney have learned from Oneback masters. Bielema’s (or, perhaps more accurately, Paul Chryst’s) Wisconsin offense was based on the Oneback concepts of Washington Redskins great Joe Gibbs, who drew up an inside zone, outside zone, power, and counter as the basic run concepts of any pro-style offense. Most of Gibbs’ ideas about the running game are still at work in college and the NFL to this day. Chaney, along with Bobby Petrino, learned his offense from Dennis Erickson, who preferred a 3WR, 1TE Oneback offense with deep passing concepts like the running back wheel route and the shallow cross.

So, when all things are considered, both Bret Bielema’s run-heavy offense and Jim Chaney’s pass-heavy offense have roots in the same system: the Gibbs/Erickson Oneback. Bielema’s overall goal in hiring Chaney was to mix Gibbs’ run concepts with Erickson’s pass concepts and form a super-Oneback. That’s why we here at Fayette Villains claimed, even while others were doubting whether Bielema and Chaney’s philosophies could mesh, that X’s and O’s would not be the problem if things didn’t work. Even after a 3-9 season, we still believe that.

Now, if Bielema and Chaney both like Oneback, why all the I-formation last year? A few guesses on that:

  1. Kiero Small. It’s hard to put a senior captain like Kiero Small on the bench. Plus he was really good at being a fullback. The offense was more set towards being a two-back team when Bielema arrived.
  2. Lack of a second tight end. The second tight end, or “flex” (called the H-back in most spread offenses), has to be talented, as he’s frequently the lead blocker AND must be a reliable pass-catcher. Mitchell Loewen was a good blocker, but not much of a receiving threat. Sprinkle is a catcher but only average blocker. Again, the offense was geared towards 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 TE).
  3. Line struggling with run blocking. Obviously, most of Arkansas’ offensive line was recruited to pass block. Sam Pittman has been pulling highly-touted linemen in left and right, but veterans like Brey Cook, Mitch Smothers, and Luke Charpentier (and last year, Travis Swanson and David Hurd) have spent most of their careers working on pass blocking. Running out of a oneback requires your line to be very big and very good. Gibbs’ lines at Washington were the biggest in the NFL and were called the “Hogs,” hence Washington fans of old wearing Razorback pig noses. Bielema/Chaney didn’t have that last year, so they had to use a more dedicated run-blocker (fullback) over a more versatile spot (second tight end).

Now an FAQ with myself.

Does this mean Arkansas will ditch the I-formation?

Of course not. Remember that Bobby Petrino also ran a Oneback (albeit the 11 personnel type: 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB), and yet the Hogs ran 8-10 plays per game out of oneback formations. It does imply that I formation may not be the base offense anymore–or at least will be less utilized–as is consistent with both Bielema and Chaney’s histories. Wisconsin had a dedicated fullback on the field on a little over a third of Wisconsin’s offensive snaps in 2012, although the wing/flex tight end motioned up to the fullback spot and became the lead blocker on many  plays.

Will this help Brandon Allen at all?

It should, because it gives him another potential receiver (AJ Derby) instead of a dedicated run blocker (fullback). It makes the offense more versatile overall, as the extra tight end is frequently motioned across the formation, causing the defense to reveal their formation or creating an advantage at some point on the field. Using extensive motion allows Allen to manipulate the defense to get the pass matchups he’s looking for, or clear the box of defenders and run the football.

What does the Oneback look like?

It has several formations, but here’s one of the basics.

Ace, 12 personnel, double TE right

Ace, 12 personnel, double TE right

Based on the Hog depth chart, the starters here would be:

X: Demetrius Wilson

Y: Hunter Henry

Z: Keon Hatcher or Drew Morgan

H: AJ Derby

Not bad. Derby, the H or wing TE, can be motioned up into the fullback role for the inside zone, motioned across the formation to pull the defense away for the outside zone (shown below), or made the lead for the power and counter. Here’s the outside zone.

Outside zone. Notice the H-back's presnap motion across the formation before cutting back

Outside zone. Notice the H-back’s presnap motion across the formation before cutting back

Here, the H-back motions across the formation to a slot just outside the left tackle. Typically, an outside linebacker or safety will follow him, removing one defender from the right side of the line. The motion gives the Hogs a balanced formation, so Auburn doesn’t know which side the power or zones will come to. Here, Derby and a pulling guard (in this case, left guard Luke Charpentier) come back to the right side to lead the charge for the back. The pulling guards give Arkansas five blockers on five defenders on the right side.

To complement Derby’s moving to the left before blocking back right, the outside zone is often paired with a similar play, Blast.

Blast. Notice the similar presnap movement

Blast. Notice the similar presnap movement

If the linebackers start overplaying the motion of the outside zone, a quick-hitting Blast could catch the linebackers out of place. In the I-formation, it’s the fullback that leads through that hole, but in a Oneback, the motioning tight end that does the work. It’s harder for the defense to see it coming from this look.

I don’t want to get too much into the Oneback if we find out on Saturday that the Hogs are still in a base I-formation, but that’s a primer. It’s worth remembering that Bielema got his run concepts originally from the Oneback, and as soon as he, Jim Chaney, and Sam Pittman feel like the Hog line is ready, the Oneback probably will become the most-used. More questions about the offensive staff’s confidence in the offense will be answered soon…

The 2013 Review, Part III: Coming Up with Solutions

Posted on | June 11, 2014 | No Comments

The Razorback defense has nowhere to go but up in 2014. Defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash is gone, fellow secondary coach Taver Johnson is gone, and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge is gone. Based on results, Partridge is the only one that will be missed by Hog fans, and may be the only one that was not forced out.

Fans suspected during the season that Randy Shannon, who comes from a background of multiple fronts and numerous blitzes, had a philosophical feud with Chris Ash, whose background includes more static fronts and less blitzing. Bret Bielema appeared to side with Shannon, as new defensive coordinator Robb Smith comes from a similar background as Shannon. You can read up on Smith’s background here.

Let’s get down to business and check out the defensive success rate. Remember, success rate is the percentage of plays that gained at least 50% of the yards to go on first down, 67% of yards to go on second down, and 100% of the yards to go on third down. To see these numbers applied to different aspects of the Arkansas offense, check out Part II of our review series. I left off the entire fourth quarter of the Alabama game, since the Crimson Tide had long removed their starters and the results didn’t really reflect them sticking to a gameplan.

Arkansas’ conference opponents’ success rates

Oh my. That’s bad. Though it felt like the Hogs gave up way too many third down conversions, the numbers are not the end of the world. Second down, however, is stunningly bad. Arkansas’ conference opponents had successful offensive plays on 53.5% of second down plays, and averaged a stunning 7.3 yards per play.

Arkansas’ conference opponents’ rushing success rates

Jim Chaney can only dream about a rushing offense posting a 52.6% success rate with 6.5 yards per carry on first down. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have to dream, he needs only watch Arkansas’ rushing defense in 2013. After the first three conference games (Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina), Arkansas’ rushing defense was allowing 5.1 yards per carry with a 48.9% success rate. Bad, certainly, but not the end of the world. The Alabama and Auburn games understandably destroyed these already-poor numbers, but Ole Miss and LSU had great success with first down running as well. Over Arkansas’ final five games, opponents posted nearly 8 yards per carry on first down.

The Razorback defense can build off those second down numbers, but you’re not going to be able to get off the field if you’re giving up those kind of first down rushing stats.

Arkansas’ conference opponents’ passing success rates

If you recall Brandon Allen’s numbers, you’ll find that on third down, opponent quarterbacks were only slightly better than Allen (35% success rate, 6.2 yards per attempt).

But second down. Wow. A staggering 57.1% of second down passes gained at least two-thirds of the remaining yards to go. Before we recall the first down rushing numbers above and try and argue that those stats are just indicative of short passes on second-and-short, check out the yards per attempt. Averaging 10.1 yards per completion is decent. Per attempt is unheard of. By my calculations, opponents were completing around 70% of their passes and averaging around 15 yards per completion on second down.

Chicken vs. egg

Arkansas’ first down rushing numbers and second down passing numbers allowed are the two biggest issues that must be fixed for 2014. If Auburn is allowed to rush for 8 yards per carry on first down as they did last fall, the Razorbacks don’t stand a chance. And if Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech can have a field day on second down passing, it won’t matter how weak their running games are. So which problem is causing the other?

Fortunately, this isn’t a chicken or egg argument. In college football, and especially in the SEC, stopping the run should be the top priority. If Arkansas can fix its first down rush defense, the second down pass defense problem will be less of an issue to deal with. In fact, the problem is the same as the one that’s plaguing the offense, except in reverse. The offense’s first down inefficiency is putting it bad situations for second and third down. The defense’s inability to stop opposing offense’s first down running game is putting opponents in ideal situations for later downs.

Fixing Arkansas’ defense

Arkansas’ defense under Chris Ash was a strict split-safety defense. You can check it out in action here, getting torched by LSU for a game-losing touchdown.

Arkansas' 2013 defense under Chris Ash

Arkansas’ 2013 defense under Chris Ash

In a split-safety defense, each safety has a responsibility to each side of the field. Under normal circumstances, the defense can only put a maximum of seven defenders in the box. Arkansas needs to be able to put eight defenders in the box to stop run heavy teams like Alabama, LSU, and Auburn. Ash’s defense was also highly reactionary, forced to try to react what the offense was doing (namely Auburn’s read options) rather than actively disrupt it.

Robb Smith’s new defense will use a lot of different types of Cover 3. Bielema specifically referenced Quarters-Quarters-Half (also known as Cover 6) as a base defense.

Cover 6 Cloud

Cover 6 Cloud

The main thing to note about this defense is that it is asymmetrical. The corner on the right side will stay down near the flat, allowing him to assist against the run. Cloud refers to any type of Cover 3 with two safeties and a cornerback deep, leaving the other cornerback to assist against the run. Since Arkansas’ cornerbacks struggle to make tackles in space, sky (two cornerbacks and a safety deep) might be preferable.

Cover 6 Sky

Cover 6 Sky

While Quarters is a strict defense that depends on execution of very basic reads, all types of Cover 3, including QQH/Cover 6, allow a defensive coordinator to experiment with different types of blitzes and coverages and create a more disruptive defense. This type of defense will depend more heavily on the planning and in-game calls of Robb Smith, as opposed to Ash’s defense which relied almost entirely on basic execution and featured gameplans that didn’t differ greatly from opponent to opponent.

Plenty more attention will be given to what Arkansas’ 2014 defense could look like when we begin our preview series this August.

Fixing Arkansas’ offense

Let’s check out Arkansas’ total offensive success rates for conference games.

Arkansas' offensive success rates in conference games

Arkansas’ offensive success rates in conference games

Unfortunately, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Arkansas’ primary problem was piecing together two well-executed plays on first down and second down. The offense often followed up a good first down play with a bad second down, and a bad first down play with a good second down one.

Running the ball was the best bet on first down.

Arkansas' rushing offensive success rates in conference games

Arkansas’ rushing success rates in conference games

Not bad numbers overall. The second down rushing success rate is a little bit low (50% is the target), but the first down numbers of 48.3% success and 6.1 yards per carry are right in the wheelhouse of what the offense needs.

Now, cover your eyes if you don’t like ugly stats…

Arkansas' passing success rates in conference games

Arkansas’ passing success rates in conference games

Yikes. For this formula, sacks and quarterback scrambles were counted as passes. Still, those first down numbers are inexcusable. Arkansas’ first down passing target is 50% with 6.5 yards per attempt, and neither figure is close. Averaging 3.9 yards per attempt is about as bad as you’ll ever see in major college football. Second down is hardly better: the target is 45% success with 7 yards per attempt, and both figures are missed badly (7% margin success, and 1.8 yards per attempt). If you’re wondering where these targets are coming from, we’re getting there. The offense was actually able to salvage quite a few third downs. The target is 40% success with 6.5 yards per attempt, and the success rate is at least close.

Goals vs. performance

Arkansas’ offense certainly didn’t meet its goals in 2013. But how should the combination of Bret Bielema’s style and Jim Chaney’s style have meshed? What will a successful Arkansas offense do? Based on a glance at the statistics and reviewing of film, it seems that there is some method to the madness.

For starters, here are the two different ways one could study an offense:

  • Appearance: The most common way a fanbase judges an offense. What formations do they use? Is the quarterback in shotgun or under center? Do they use tight ends or fullbacks? Is there a scrambling quarterback? This way of judging an offense is only successful in judging it against a better (or worse) version of itself. You can’t compare the offense of Arkansas and the offense of, say, Ole Miss based on appearance.
  • Philosophy: This is how coaches usually judge an offense. It’s how we here at Fayette Villains are going to quantify and qualify Arkansas’ offense and its opponents moving forward. To a casual fan, Ole Miss’ quarterback Bo Wallace handing off to I’Tavius Mathers up the middle out the shotgun is completely different than Brandon Allen handing off to Jonathan Williams out of the I-formation. But to someone studying philosophy, they are the same thing: “inside run.” The purpose of an inside run is to draw the defense inside to set up a play-action pass or a play to the outside. That’s true whether you’re Ole Miss, Arkansas, Texas A&M, or Navy.

When studying Arkansas’ philosophy, it appears to me that Arkansas’ offense is trying to execute like Florida did under Urban Meyer. This comes as no surprise, given that Meyer (and Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen) learned a lot of their offense concepts from none other than Jim Chaney.

So what was Florida’s gameplan? The 2008 national-champion Gators generally used a conservative first down, often either an outside run/sweep with Percy Harvin, an inside run with Tim Tebow or Jeff Demps, or a short pass, often to all-American tight end Aaron Hernandez. If the gain on the play was short (0-5 yards, usually), the Gators would come back with an equally conservative second down to maneuver into a manageable third down. If the play picked up nice yardage (6-9 yards), the Gators would take advantage of second-and-short to turn Tebow loose for a play with a chance of gaining big yards: a speed option, a play-action pass, a reverse, or a jailbreak screen. If it worked, then the Gators had a big play; if it didn’t, they still had a manageable third down.

From a strategic standpoint, there’s little difference between this…

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…and this.

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Arkansas fans often thought of those outside runs with Hatcher, Marshall, Horton, or Herndon as “trick” plays, but they really weren’t. Bret Bielema used end arounds in large numbers at Wisconsin. They have a specific role in creating a complete offensive system. A complete offensive system needs four basic types of play: inside run, outside run, quick pass, dropback pass. Other plays such as play-action passes usually mix an inside run concept with a dropback pass route.

So, to summarize Arkansas’ philosophy, think of it as Jim Chaney’s philosophy from Bret Bielema’s formations. If the offense fails, it’s not because they didn’t “mesh.” It’s because either the talent wasn’t there, or the playcalling was not good. Chaney being asked to call more running plays that he did at Tennessee and Purdue is actually not as big of a change as one might think. The ultimate goal of the offense remains the same.

Here are the Hogs’ first down numbers.

Arkansas' first down offensive success rates with goals

Arkansas’ first down offensive success rates with goals

The goals, obviously, are just an idea of where the offense would prefer to be. Here, we see that the first down running was in great shape, but the first down passing was a disaster. There was absolutely no reason to ever throw the ball on first down unless the offense was in the two-minute drill. The staggering gap between yards per attempt is reason for major concern.

Arkansas' second down offensive success rates with goals

Arkansas’ second down offensive success rates with goals

The rushing yards per carry could afford to go up a bit, but other than that, running the ball wasn’t the problem on second down either. Arkansas was faced with so many second-and-longs that a 40.5% success rate doesn’t work. Allen was slightly better through the air, but not even close to where he needs to be for the offense to work properly. This is the down to take shots down the field if you can get into a second-and-short, but it spent way too much time having to still be conservative because second-and-shorts were few and far between.

Arkansas' third down offensive success rates

Arkansas’ third down offensive success rates

A couple of observations here. First, the 79.8% pass rate on third down is far too high. If you’re having to throw the ball on third down, it generally means that the offense has more than one or two yards to go to pick up the first. A pass rate of about 75% is the highest a team should face, and an “on-schedule” offense like Arkansas’ would probably prefer third down passing to be under 70%. The second problem is that when the offense did run it, it didn’t convert at an effective rate. A smashmouth team like Arkansas should rarely be stopped on third-and-short, and converting only 9 of 21 tries is bad. It’s worth noting that plenty of the misses were draw plays on third-and-long, but there were plenty of short yardage failures, none worse than Williams getting stuffed at the goal line against Auburn. That should not happen in this offense.

When Allen had to throw it, he wasn’t bad, converting at a 37.4% clip, his best of any down. He proved to be an effective scrambler, picking up 3 of his conversions on the ground and finishing the season with positive rushing yards (remember that quarterback scrambles and sacks are counted as passing plays).

Learning from the best

Let the rampant speculation begin

Let the rampant speculation begin

I have zero confirmation as to what Arkansas’ staff will discuss with the Patriots. Maybe Ryan Mallett. Maybe spying on the other team. Maybe how to handle the haters. Or maybe how to get the most out offensive talent.

No one in the NFL is better at adapting to talent than the New England Patriots. They built a dominant support staff for Tom Brady in the early 2000s, until Brady became the top quarterback in the league. Now, Brady is the constant, and the Patriots can use whatever talent they have: now, the use a committee of running backs and excellent tight end play to cover for a weak receiving corps.

The Patriot offense and the Hog offense are in similar circumstances. For starters, here is the Patriots’ general situation: wide receivers come and go through New England like nobody’s business, and Tom Brady perpetually has a crop of young, inexperienced, low-drafted wideouts to throw to.

The Patriots' wide receiver struggles are well-documented.

The Patriots’ wide receiver struggles are well-documented.

Somehow, though, New England consistently wins double-digit games and ranks near the top of the NFL in passing. How do they do it? The main reason? Their tight ends. Rob Gronkowski is one of the elite tight ends in the game, and Aaron Hernandez was as well until he killed some people. Until he departed for Denver, slot receiver Wes Welker was the best slot man in the game. Since Randy Moss’s departure in 2009, the Pats have largely gone without a dominant X-WR: Calvin Johnson or Julio Jones.

Generally, a lack of an X-WR keeps the offense “constrained”: it won’t be able to go down the field and won’t be able to shake the safeties from coverage. If you can’t shake the safeties, they’ll eventually come up against the run and help take that away too. We saw this with Arkansas in 2013. With 2013’s X Javontee Herndon graduated, the staff added 6-foot-4 Cody Hollister and 6-foot-6 Kendrick Edwards. Also, 6-foot-3 D’Arthur Cowan and 6-foot-2 Demetrius Wilson should be fully healthy for the first time since 2012. The Hogs also had minimal success lining up 6-foot-5 tight end Jeremy Sprinkle outside as an X last year. Short of completely fixing the outside receiver problem with one of these guys, here are some Patriots concepts that have helped New England survive.

Pivot

Pivot concept from Pistol two-back Slot formation

Pivot concept from Pistol two-back Slot formation

The slot receiver (“2″) in this diagram is Keon Hatcher, who is probably Arkansas’ most talented receiver but is not anywhere near physical enough to line up outside. Putting him in the slot will give him a more favorable coverage. Here, the outside receiver runs a “dig” route at about 10 yards, drawing the corner on that side back a few steps until the strong safety picks him up. Hatcher takes three steps and pivots to the sideline. If the linebacker is too far inside (playing the run) or too far back (playing the deep pass), he won’t be able to step in front of the pass, which should find Hatcher just under the corner’s coverage for an easy five-yard gain.

Too easy

Too easy

This gives Allen an easy throw to his most reliable receiver. Furthermore, if it’s run successfully a couple of times, the linebackers will start cheating outside against slot receivers, opening up the outside power run. What’s not to love?

TE Post

Like the Patriots, the Razorbacks’ best passing game weapon is tight end Hunter Henry. Though the Razorbacks are not at SEC level in terms of wide receiver talent yet, the Hogs have arguably the best individual tight end in Henry and the best total tight end roster when AJ Derby, Mitchell Loewen, and Jeremy Sprinkle are considered. Sending Henry on short routes like an quick option route for first down plays designed to get about five yards is great, but the Hogs can really weaponize Henry by sending him down the field, where his size and speed make him very difficult for a safety to cover.

TE Post from Strong-I formation

TE Post from Strong-I formation

The split end’s dig route should occupy the free safety. In this formation, the fullback stays in to block while the back goes out to the sideline. There is a little bit of a “stretch” concept on the cornerback, who has to decide whether to follow the flanker (“1″) or come down to the flat. Henry’s job is to go about ten yards down the field, take one step to the outside as if he’s running a flag/corner route, and then cut back to the middle. If executed correctly, the strong safety will commit outside and the middle of the field will be wide open. If the defense is in a Tampa 2 coverage, the middle linebacker (“M”) will retreat back and may get underneath Henry, but his doing so should leave the short middle route open for the flanker coming on his quick-in route.

Patriots' tight end Benjamin Watson caught two touchdown passes in the final 2:08 a thrilling 25-24 win over Buffalo in 2009. Both touchdowns came on TE Post routes.

Patriots’ tight end Benjamin Watson caught two touchdown passes in the final 2:08 of a thrilling 25-24 win over Buffalo in 2009. Both touchdowns came on TE Post routes.

With Henry established as a downfield threat, the safeties will pay special attention to him, helping remove the constraint on the offense. Chaney can then call similar plays to draw attention to Henry and get better matchups for other receivers.

Double Smash concept from Weak-I unbalanced Trips formation

Double Smash concept from Weak-I unbalanced Trips formation

The Razorbacks showed a fondness for this formation in 2013, with the first two plays of season–runs by Jonathan Williams over the weak side behind Kiero Small–coming from it. Here, Henry’s deep threat will occupy both safeties, leaving the split end, slot receiver and running back to work a little three-man curl-flat-corner concept against two defenders. That’s a victory for the offense every time.

Backdoor routes

Jim Chaney needs no introduction to these. A backdoor route can keep the safeties from overcommitting against the run or against another receiver.

TE Backside Wheel from I formation Tight Close

TE Backside Wheel from I formation Tight Close

The flexed tight end (“2″), on this play Austin Tate, stays in to block along with Kiero Small, giving Allen seven pass protectors. He fakes the handoff and looks for Henry, who has snuck out down the right sideline with no one watching.

Backside Wheel by Henry vs. Texas A&M

Drive, levels, and shallow cross

When in doubt, borrow a Petrino offensive concept. The Razorbacks should be VERY familiar with this play.

Shallow Cross from I-formation Slot

Shallow Cross from I-formation Slot

There are three levels to the Shallow Cross: the split end takes on the safeties to take the top off the coverage, the tight end’s dig will draw the linebackers back, and the slot receiver is usually wide open underneath.

If you’re forgetting what a shallow cross looks like, here’s a quick gif refresher.

"Jarius Wright wide open over the middle"...heard that one before

“Jarius Wright wide open over the middle”…heard that one before

Hey LSU, make sure you cover the deep post of the shallow cross

Hey LSU, make sure you cover the deep post of the shallow cross

Drive is a similar concept, except the crossers come from the same side.

Drive route from I-formation Pro

Drive from I-formation Pro

Notice that in both the Shallow and the Drive, Hunter Henry gets to take the “dig” middle route. The “2” (slot or flanker, depending on formation), is Hatcher, meaning these concepts can be run from I formation and use Arkansas’ two best pass-catchers without taking them out of position.

Levels is a related concept and is an NFL staple. Chaney is no doubt familiar with this one, which was used by Scott Linehan in St. Louis, but most famously by Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.

Levels from I-formation Slot Close Right

Levels from I-formation Slot Close Right

The close-set split end on the right side can also be a tight end. Again, this play has three levels: the “go” route takes the cover off the top of the defense, while the “dig” by the slot receiver pulls back the linebackers. This generally leaves the 1 open for the underneath route. Occasionally the 2 could also be a tight end, making the 1 a flanker.

Get the backs involved

The Patriots do a fantastic job of getting the ball to running backs. Shane Vereen is consistently one of the top receiving backs in the league. Both Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins have good hands as well.

Ghost/Tosser from Oneback Slot formation

Ghost/Tosser from Oneback Slot formation

This play is a Patriot staple. The two-man concept on the left, “tosser” provides a fairly easy double-slant concept. Allen’s slants are occasionally behind his receivers, but he generally puts good velocity on it. Keon Hatcher’s most efficient route last season was a slant: he snagged over 75% of slants thrown his way.

Hatcher snags a slant from Allen in the spring game

Hatcher snags a slant from Allen in the spring game

As you can see in the picture, the “2” for this play is Henry (middle left) who is taking the linebacker out. This is a good way to run the tosser concept, although you can also follow the diagram and put Hatcher in the slot and throw the inside slant to him.

The tosser concept is designed to beat a man defense, while the “ghost” concept on the other side is a strong flood designed to beat a zone, usually Cover 3.

Ghost/Tosser from Oneback Slot vs. Man (Tosser side) and Cover 3 (Ghost side). Orange area indicates region that flat defender is "stretched" in

Ghost/Tosser from Oneback Slot vs. Man (Tosser side) and Cover 3 (Ghost side). Orange area indicates region that flat defender is “stretched” in

As shown above, the tosser concept is where Allen would look against a man defense, and if the defense is aligned in a zone, preferably Cover 3, the ghost concept run between the tight end and running back will stretch the weakside linebacker, who is tasked with the flat. Cover 3’s primary weakness is the W to the flat, and the Hogs can put two of their most reliable pass-catchers (Henry and Williams) in a nice stretch concept to beat it.

Stick

Stick a concept designed to help the tight end beat a short zone. The Hogs probably don’t need to learn this one from the Patriots: they ran it plenty of times in 2013. It’s another way to alleviate the pressure on other receivers.

Stick from Strong-I Flanker Close formation. Orange area indicates region that the tight end has to get leverage

Stick from Strong-I Flanker Close formation. Orange area indicates region that the tight end has to get leverage

Again, the stick is a great quick pass against Cover 3. The flanker (Hatcher) takes the top off the coverage, while the fullback takes the corner out to the flat. Henry takes two or three steps and plants quickly toward the sideline. He needs to get outside and underneath the linebacker and Allen needs to put a short pass out in front of him. It’s generally about a four-yard gain, and is a good third-and-3 concept to run.

Other notes

The spring game got off to an ominous start, as Brandon Allen was picked off on the second play, his first pass. The offense was trying to run an all-curls concept, a staple of Jim Chaney at Purdue in the Tiller offense.

All-curls from Shotgun Trio Left vs. Cover 3

All-curls from Shotgun Trio Left vs. Cover 3

The offense and defense in diagram are aligned as they were on the play. Notice that Chris Ash’s Quarters defense is over. The two outside defenders, cornerback Will Hines (“C”) and strong linebacker Dante Carr (“S”) are lined up pretty tight; Carr is going for a jam on the on-line receiver (Hunter Henry, who has been split out). To Henry’s either side, Hatcher (“1″) is coming inside and is the primary target, while AJ Derby (“3″), another split tight end, is supposed to go outside and be open if Carr tries to follow Henry or Hatcher.

Strong safety Deandre Coley (“$”) ultimately got the interception, but the MVP of the play was Hines, who recognized the concept, broke off of his route, and batted the football into the air, allowing Coley to pick it off.

Will Hines (9) jumps the curl route by Hines

Will Hines (9) jumps the curl route by Hatcher

Chastising Allen for making that throw is too easy; and, to be honest, it wasn’t that bad of a decision. Hatcher probably should have caught it, even if it was thrown in traffic. I’m focusing instead on the aggressiveness of the defense on this play. The defense swarmed all three members of the trio that included two big, physical tight ends, and a very athletic flanker. It was smart, aggressive football by the defense.

I’m working on mapping Arkansas’ success by routes. Which routes yielded the most attempts? Highest completion percentage? Most interceptions? If I get it done in the next few days I’ll post it. If not, I’ll save it for the 2014 Preview series which should launch around August 1. Some other partially completed projects include playcalling by field position, run direction information, and some various defensive content. Again, I’ll post if I get enough of it done.

The 2013 Review, Part II: Offensive Success Rate

Posted on | June 9, 2014 | No Comments

UPDATE: Thanks to a fellow Hog fan, I have secured a copy of the Mississippi State game play-by-play. The statistics of the running backs have been updated to reflect that game as well. The conclusions remain unchanged by the results of the game.

As we continue our look back at the 2013 season, we do get some better news. The running game was solid for the Hogs in 2013, ranking 21st in the FBS in rushing yards per game. The passing game is going to have to help in order for the running game to be truly dominant, but the Hogs can be one of the best rushing teams in the nation, much less the SEC, if things work out in 2014.

I ran the numbers on Hog tailbacks Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins in conference games, tracking rushing by down and situation. To track how efficient they were carrying the ball, I used a statistic called success rate, which is the percentage of plays that can be considered “successful.” In order for a play to be considered successful, it must gain a certain amount of yards, depending on the down and distance.

  • First Down: must gain at least 50% of yards to go to be considered successful
  • Second Down: must gain at least 67% of yards to go
  • Third and Fourth Down: must gain at least 100% of yards to go

For example, if it’s first-and-10 and Williams rushes for three yards, the play is not considered successful because it didn’t gain at least 50% of the yards to go.

The results I found were surprising; almost as surprising as Brandon Allen’s passing numbers, and in fact, these appear to complement those numbers. The Arkansas offense almost never ran the ball on third down. Let me clarify that: the offense almost never ran the ball on third down with Collins and Williams. Kiero Small had a handful of short-yardage attempts, and Keon Hatcher and Javontee Herndon each had a couple of third down end-arounds. But Arkansas rarely lined it up on third down and ran the football out of a standard set. For all the Razorback fans wanting to compare Bielema to Houston Nutt, Nutt’s infamous “smoke draw” was nowhere to be found in the 2013 Razorback offense.

Over the first four conference games (Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama), Collins and Williams combined for just one third down rushing attemptOne. After a bye week to sort things out, the duo combined for three third down tries in the first half against Auburn. The two backs combined for nine total third-down attempts, which is staggeringly few if you think about it.

Jonathan Williams’ 2013 rushing stats, conference games only

Williams was Arkansas’ first down back. A total of 63.9% of his carries came on first down, much higher than Collins. Notice Williams’ first down average of 5.9 yards per carry on his 49 tries. Then recall the passing game review, which saw Brandon Allen averaging only 4.5 yards per pass attempt on his 66 first down passes. Why did Arkansas even bother to throw the ball on first down, again?

Alex Collins’ 2013 rushing stats, conference games only

Collins, despite more carries, averaged fewer yards per carry and had a lower success rate than Williams. Only 56% of his carries were on first down, appreciably less than Williams. The first down success rates are almost identical, but Williams was gaining almost a full yard more per first down tote.

First down is responsible for second down

Collins’ low success rate on second down is troubling. However, it might be misleading. Success on second down requires a play to gain two-thirds of the necessary yardage to go. If it’s second-and-10, that means gaining seven yards. Recall in the passing game review (link above) that Allen only completed 39.4% of his first down passes. That meant that after a first down pass, 60.6% of second downs were second-and-10, thus requiring seven yards to be successful. Understanding Arkansas’ second down troubles requires understanding first down execution.

Arkansas’ first down success rate in conference games

See the problem? For the data provided, the Hogs gained 5 or more yards on only 36.7% of first downs. When Allen attempted a pass on first down, there was a 69.7% chance that second down would be second-and-long.

Now let’s reconsider second down.

Arkansas’ second down success rate in conference games

The Hogs dramatically increased pass attempts on second down, and Allen was much more efficient through the air. The Hogs averaged 0.3 more yards per attempt on second downs and were successful about 2.5% more of the time, compared to first down.

On to third down.

Arkansas’ third down success rate in conference games

Allen was almost completely responsible for third down, and he actually didn’t do too poorly. A team third down conversion rate of 34.9% is a little low, but Allen’s 6.2 yards per attempt isn’t bad. Of course, defenses often back off if a team is facing third-and-long, and some of Allen’s yards may have been given up intentionally, but again we see Allen was much better on third down than on first down.

Here are Allen’s success rates by down.

Brandon Allen's success rates by down in conference games

Brandon Allen’s success rates by down in conference games

Fixing first down passing is worth at least two wins in 2014, and that’s not an exaggeration.

Since third down playcalls are usually at the mercy of the situation, here’s a side-by-side comparison of Allen’s passing versus Collins’/Williams’ rushing on first and second downs only.

Arkansas’ success rate on first and second downs in conference games, Brandon Allen (passing) and Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins (rushing)

On the first two downs, the Hogs were better served by running the football. Averaging more yards per attempt is one reason, but running plays set up optimal third down situations an additional 8.5% of the time. The goal for the Arkansas offense should be around 42-45% success on first and second downs, and 40% success on third downs. The rushing numbers were on the low end of acceptable, while the passing numbers lagged behind badly, to the surprise of no one who watched a Razorback game in 2013.

Also, in standard offensive sets (not including trick plays or short yardage packages), Allen threw on 89.1% of third downs, and that figure doesn’t even include the handful of times Allen was sacked or scrambled. Having more success on first and second down would mean lowering that number to around 75-80%, which would almost certainly yield a higher third down conversion rate without Allen even having to improve his third down passing. Once again, the key for Arkansas’ offense in 2014 is better passing game execution in the early downs, particularly first down.

Receiver targets by down

NOTE: Targets are generally a subjective stat. I’ve compared notes with some other Razorback statisticians and found that my notes are a little more conservative in declaring targets for incomplete passes. A “target” is defined as a pass aimed at a receiver, complete or not.

Let’s look at the success rate of Brandon Allen’s various targets in the passing game. For this stat run, we’ll only consider Herndon, Hatcher, Henry, and the running backs (Collins, Williams, Small) as a collective.

I’ve simplified the graphic to make it easier to read: the initial graphic that actually did the calculations was nine columns wide. Successes, Success Rate, and Yards/Target are the most significant stats for this examination.

Arkansas' first-down success rate by receiver

Arkansas’ first down success rate by receiver

Without a doubt, Hunter Henry was the best target on first downs. He recorded nine successes, a 50% success rate, and an impressive 7.9 yards per target. No other receiver came close to matching Henry’s first down production. Fixing Arkansas’ first down passing requires making Hunter Henry the focal point of the early down passing game. There are lots of spots on both sides of the ball where the Hogs lack SEC talent. Tight end is not one of those. Henry is more than capable of making an SEC linebacker or safety look silly in coverage. A play action pass to a quick out by Henry is almost a guaranteed five yards.

How about second down?

Arkansas' second down success rate by receiver

Arkansas’ second down success rate by receiver

In terms of success rate, this one was more of a wash. Henry still leads the way in yards per target, but Hatcher became a legitimate second down threat. His 43-yard reception in the first quarter of the LSU game came on a second-and-3. Hatcher also caught 60.3% of all passes thrown his way on second down, the single best catch rate of any player on any down. Running backs coming out of the backfield were a decent option if the coverage was solid, and Herndon, the X-WR, remained a bad option in the early downs when opposing coverage was still tight.

Arkansas' third down success rate by receiver

Arkansas’ third down success rate by receiver

Third down is where Herndon shone. Early in the season, Allen was looking for Herndon on every third down. Hatcher picked up the pace as a third down option later in the year, especially in the LSU game, but Herndon used a strong season start to edge him out in total successes. The success rate of the running backs was low because most of their catches came on third-and-longs when the offense was just trying to salvage something. Henry was a legitimate option on third-and-short, but at only 5.0 yards per target, was not a factor on third-and-long plays.

Playcalling options

Using only these 2013 stats compiled over the last two posts, here were Arkansas’ most efficient playcalls:

  • First Down: rush by Williams or Collins, pass to Henry
  • Second Down and short: rush by Williams, pass to Henry
  • Second Down and long: pass to Hatcher or RBs
  • Third Down and short: pass to Henry, Hatcher, or Herndon
  • Third Down and long: pass to Herndon

The Razorback offense brings back almost the entirety of its first and second down production, but must replace Herndon as a third down passing option. Adding physical targets such as WR Cody Hollister and TE AJ Derby should give Allen options if he needs to fit a pass into tight coverage, while athletic wideouts like JoJo Robinson and Jared Cornelius may, like Hatcher, have some success getting separation. The coaching staff did an excellent job bringing in new players (and moving old ones) that meet the description of what the offense is looking for. What remains is execution.

Up next, we’ll move on in the 2013 review by looking at the defense.

Running the Numbers on Brandon Allen, 2013

Posted on | June 6, 2014 | No Comments

As we prepare for the 2014 preview, which should launch in late July or early August, we’re revisiting 2013 for the last time here at Fayette Villains. After this series of posts, it will be time to put in the rearview mirror forever (thank goodness).

We’ll begin the 2013 lookback with the production from Brandon Allen, who must improve on his disastrous 2013 campaign. The numbers have been crunched, and the results are not what you might expect.

We started by compiling Allen’s passing stats on each individual down, using only the 8 conference games. The general consensus was that Allen was a complete disaster on third down because he is a “rhythm quarterback” that needs passes in the early downs. Even the experts such as USA Today wrote that Allen was “woefully inept” on third down without making any mention of how he performed on first or second down. The fans of Razorback Nation, coming off five years of a Petrino offense, offered a simple diagnosis: throw the ball more on earlier downs. Turn Brandon loose.

The numbers, however, tell us a different story. Allen’s best down was third down. By far. His numbers on first down were so bad it’s a wonder the coaches called any first down passes. In fact, given the level of competition (SEC games only were considered), Allen looked most like a competent quarterback on third down. One of the problems was that he was faced with bad situations on third down, but as previously stated, a lot of that was due to incompletions on first down. In fact, over a four-game stretch of Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn, Allen was 8 of 30 for 55 yards with an interception on first down, picking up just two first downs for those efforts. Over that same stretch, he was 17 of 36 for 222 yards on third down. Not great, but significantly better.

Here are the total numbers with analysis.

Brandon Allen's conference game stats, by down

Brandon Allen’s conference game stats, by down

Expect to see that? First down passing was a disaster, with Allen hitting a measly 39.3% with five interceptions, averaging just 4.5 yards per attempt. Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams, and Korliss Marshall each averaged more yards per carry on first down, making running on first down a much better option. Furthermore, Allen was at his most efficient on third down, hitting 54.0% percent of his passes and averaging a respectable 6.2 yards per attempt.

Although Allen’s first- and third-down passing numbers remained consistent throughout the year, his second-down passing numbers improved as the season went on. Allen was a combined 15 of 22 for 148 yards and no interceptions on second down against Ole Miss (third-to-last game) and LSU (last game). The coaches also wised up to Allen’s first-down woes and decreased first down passing over the second half of the conference schedule. In the the first four conference games (Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama), 33.3% of total pass attempts came on first down. After a bye week to sort things out, the final four conference games saw just 31.0% of total passes coming on first down.

Allen’s targets

Let’s meet Allen’s favorite targets. First, the total season numbers:

Receiving numbers (min. 50 yards), from all quarterbacks in all games

Receiving numbers (min. 50 yards), from all quarterbacks in all games

The Hogs’ big three were X-receiver Javontee Herndon, Y-TE Hunter Henry, and Z-WR Keon Hatcher, with no other player making a significant contribution. But these stats include all games and the passes from AJ Derby, along with Jonathan Williams’ pass attempts on halfback pass plays. Herndon, you might remember, had two touchdown catches against Louisiana and another against Samford.

Using only conference games and only passes thrown by Brandon Allen, here are the updated numbers, which also include targets (number of passes directed at the receiver) and catch percentage based on targets.

Receiving numbers, conference games and passes from Brandon Allen only

Receiving numbers, conference games and passes from Brandon Allen only

These numbers tell a bit of a different story. First, the departed Javontee Herndon didn’t lead the team in any category and didn’t catch a touchdown pass in conference play. That is in no way a knock on Herndon, a great Z-WR who was forced to move to X because the Hogs didn’t have anyone else. When push came to shove in conference play, opposing defenses were able to dispatch of Herndon without too much difficulty, limited him to just 6.1 yards per target, zero touchdowns, and only a 47.3% catch rate. Hunter Henry and Keon Hatcher were the Hogs’ best two targets in conference games, by quite a bit, it seems. Henry led the team with 284 yards, three touchdowns, and a 7.5 yards per target figure, while Hatcher was Allen’s favorite target, catching 21 passes on 39 targets and averaging 6.9 yards per target.

So what exactly is Arkansas trying to do in replacing Herndon? Here at Fayette Villains, we noticed Arkansas’ wide receiver issues after the Florida game, and discussed the problem and potential solutions. The post detailing the problems can be found here, and the post providing solutions (some of which were employed the coaching staff in later games), can be found here. What follows is a brief summary:

Normal I-formation offense with receivers labeled

Normal I-formation offense with receivers labeled

The X-WR generally aligns opposite the Y-TE, meaning that he is right on the line of scrimmage. He is generally a “possession receiver,” a physical, reliable, athletic receiver capable of running a variety of routes. Some examples of X-WRs in the NFL include Dez Bryant of the Cowboys, Andre Johnson of Houston, Calvin Johnson of the Lions, etc. Z-WRs, or flankers, get to line up off the line of scrimmage, and generally run a mix of screens, curls, and slants, with the occasional threat of a double move. A good Z-WR would be Miles Austin, formerly of Dallas (the Cowboys now use Terrance Williams there). Herndon is a natural Z, but since Arkansas did not have an X, he was pressed into serve there. In the offseason, the Hogs added taller and more physical receivers like Cody Hollister and Kendrick Edwards. If D’Arthur Cowan can stay healthy, he can get some work over there as well.

On the other side of the field, Hatcher and Henry were able to get open more often, totaling 77 targets, 41 receptions, 573 yards, and seven touchdowns in conference games. They were at their best against LSU, combining for 12 receptions for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Hatcher especially came on late. After 6 catches for 53 yards in the first four conference games, Hatcher caught 16 passes for 221 yards in the final four games. If the Hogs can find a reliable target at X to draw the focus of defenses, Hatcher could have a huge season. If not, the Hogs may need to employ some of the solutions detailed at the link above.

In conclusion: three things the Hogs need from the passing game in 2014

  1. A more reliable X-WR: The other two spots in the pass-catching rotation are set, but without a reliable threat to draw opposing safeties back over the weak side, opponents can stuff the run while still containing Hatcher and Henry. Brandon Allen would be helped out immensely by having a target that can fight for passes down the field. Recently, HawgSports.com’s Danny West reported that Arkansas’ coaching staff will meet with the staff of the New England Patriots. No team in football is as good as the New England Patriots at finding creative ways to get the ball downfield. The Pats are experts at developing young WRs like Julian Edelman and using tight ends like Rob Gronkowski in a variety of ways to assist in the passing game. It should be exciting this fall to see how many Patriot-like tweaks are made on the offense.
  2. Better early-down passing: In a Smashmouth offense, early-down passing is supposed to catch the defense off-guard, and thus be efficient and effective. For the Hogs in 2013, it was neither. Brandon Allen needs to hit around 65% of his first-down passes and average above 6.5 yards per attempt. Otherwise, the passing game will only yielding more passes, this time on third down. Allen was actually decent on third down in 2013, but faced far too many third-and-longs. Hitting a higher percentage on first down will keep the Hogs’ “on-schedule” offense in sync.
  3. Better downfield passing: Nothing opens up the running game like long completions. Hog fans who recall the Petrino era know this too well. Even Houston Nutt–when Clint Stoerner was under center–was able to use medium-to-deep passes to open up the run. In 2013, the tight end led the team in yards per catch (14.2) in conference play. Getting an X-WR will help, but the flanker is supposed to be able to go downfield as well, and Hatcher was very limited in his downfield role. When the defense starts creeping safeties into the box to stop the run, someone has to be able to threaten over the top.

Up next, we’ll examine the Hogs’ running game in 2013.

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